Israel, Hamas, and Biden’s failed foreign policy
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Note: This piece rests on my belief that the following two ideas are logically compatible: (1) Hamas is morally and legally responsible for the atrocities it committed against Israeli civilians; and (2) The US is responsible for policy mistakes that, over the years, have made violent attacks by Palestinian groups, including this attack, more likely. I’ve noticed, in the context of the Ukraine War, that some people find this approach to allocating responsibility not just wrong but outrageous and offensive. So I’m adding this preface as a kind of trigger warning.
Why did last week’s terrorist attacks on Israel happen? There are at least two versions of this question: (1) Why did Hamas launch such a big and vicious attack right now—in other words, what were the immediate objectives? (2) What had prepared the ground for this kind of thing over the longer sweep of time—in other words, what causes and conditions have helped fuel not just these attacks but various smaller outbursts of Palestinian violence in recent decades?
This week most people who have offered explanations of the Hamas attack (or have “provided context” for it, as they sometimes say) have focused on the second version of the question. I want to focus on the first version for two reasons: (1) It highlights a generic deficiency in US foreign policy that has a kind of relevance to the second version of the question; and (2) It highlights the amateurish recklessness of the Biden foreign policy team—something that should worry us as Israel embarks on a massive and seemingly reflexive retaliation that could lead to a regional conflagration and that the US is uniquely positioned to restrain.
No doubt the Hamas attack had more than one objective, but I agree with the many observers—such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times—who have put a lot of emphasis on this one: Hamas wanted to derail the drive toward the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states.
This drive started with Trump’s Abraham Accords, which brought Israel diplomatic recognition from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Biden has sustained the drive, offering Saudi Arabia lavish gifts (most notably a NATO-like security guarantee) if it will grant such recognition. Israel’s predictable reaction to the Hamas attack—wreaking devastation on Gaza and in the process killing many Palestinian civilians—makes it very hard for Saudi Arabia to proceed with diplomatic recognition anytime soon and indeed may strain Israel’s relations with Bahrain and the UAE (not because the leaders of these Arab countries care about the Palestinians, but because they care about seeming to care about the Palestinians).
Here’s something about the Trump-Biden normalization drive that I doubt either Trump or Biden thought very clearly and seriously about: It was bound to seem very threatening to three different Middle East actors who collectively have the power to deeply destabilize the region and even usher in a globally catastrophic war.
1) The Palestinian people. The prospect of normalized relations between Israel and Arab states had for decades been thought of as leverage to be used on behalf of the Palestinians. The Arab states were to withhold diplomatic recognition until there was a deal between Israel and the Palestinians that ended Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza. So giving Israel the big prize of Arab recognition before that—as both Trump and Biden favor—reduces the chances of the Palestinians ever being liberated from the humiliating subjugation they’ve endured for generations.
The iconoclastic Israeli journalist Gideon Levy this week characterized Israel’s attitude toward the issue like this: “We’ll make peace with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinians will be forgotten until they’re erased, as quite a few Israelis would like.” Whether or not that is indeed the way many Israelis thought of the Trump-Biden normalization drive, it’s only natural that Palestinians would assume as much. So Biden’s weirdly intense drive to seal the deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia was bound to only increase the despair, alienation, and anger of Palestinians.
2) Hamas. Biden’s Saudi-Israel normalization deal would steer large amounts of money and other resources to the Palestinian Authority—Hamas’s western-backed rival for influence among Palestinians. So even if you assume that Hamas isn’t motivated by actual concern for the Palestinian people (a plausible assumption, especially in light of recent events), Hamas’s desire to derail the Trump-Biden normalization train shouldn’t come as a surprise.
3) Iran. There’s no evidence that the Iranians conceived or orchestrated the attack on Israel, but they may have given it their approval. And in any event it’s unlikely that Hamas would have undertaken the attack had the envisioned consequences not seemed at least consistent with the interests of Iran, its long-time supporter. So it’s important to understand how threatening Biden’s proposed Israeli-Saudi deal seemed to Iran. The deal would have given the Saudis a guarantee that America would assist them if they wound up in a war. Iran no doubt feared that this guarantee would embolden the Saudis and also make them more likely to prevail over Iran in the event of war. More broadly, the whole normalization drive, including Trump’s Abraham Accords, seemed aimed at consolidating what Iran sees as an anti-Iran coalition: Israel, the US, and several wealthy Sunni Arab states.
In sum: Trump and Biden chose to pursue a Middle East policy that was exceedingly unwelcome from the perspective of Iran, Hamas, and the Palestinians. Two of these three actors—Iran and Hamas—have the capacity to deploy large quantities of violence. And their likelihood of doing that is to some extent mediated by the third actor, the Palestinian people; the more discontent and desperation the Palestinians feel, the more inclined they’ll be to see violence as justified in their defense—and the more political capital Iran and Hamas can gain by being seen as their defenders.
So, all told, the Trump-Biden Arab-Israel normalization drive was a recipe for trouble. It wasn’t the only factor that made last week’s horrors more likely, and there’s no way of knowing for sure whether it was a big factor. But for all we know it was a decisive factor, and in any event it’s the kind of thing that more prudent presidents would have been very reluctant to pursue.
What’s more, it illustrates a generic problem with US foreign policy. That problem (as regular NZN readers may be able to guess) is cognitive empathy deficit: a failure to understand, or duly consider, the perspectives of important actors. (Like, for example, Russia.) I’m not talking about emotional empathy—“feeling their pain” or for that matter even caring about them. I’m just talking about understanding their perspective so you can anticipate how they’re likely to react to things you’re thinking about doing.
I won’t here try to mount a sustained argument that this problem—a failure of perspective taking—figures in the answer to the second question I posed at the outset of this piece: How there came to be so much discontent in the West Bank and Gaza that Palestinian resistance movements would coalesce and assume violent form. But the basic idea is just that both the US and Israel have repeatedly failed to give due consideration to how the world looks to oppressed and disenfranchised people who have the normal human allotment of pride, the normal human demand for respect, the normal human capacity for righteous indignation, and the normal human reflex of retribution (a reflex currently being demonstrated by Israel).
This week brought a relevant data point in the form of a remark by Martin Indyk, who has been centrally involved in US policy on Israel-Palestine. He was ambassador to Israel under presidents Clinton and Bush, and he also served as Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East and Clinton’s chief adviser on Israel-Palestine. Indyk is among those who suspect that impeding Israel-Arab normalization was a big motivation for the Hamas attack. As he said this week: “So this was an opportunity for Hamas and its Iranian backers to disrupt the whole process, which I think in retrospect was deeply threatening to both of them.”
Note that he says “in retrospect.” Apparently Indyk hadn’t really grasped, before the attack, how the normalization drive would look from the point of view of Hamas and Iran. Neither had I. But I’m not a full time observer of the Middle East who was deeply involved in US policy on Israel-Palestine under three presidents! And I haven’t, as Indyk has, expressed support for the Abraham Accords and Biden’s Israel-Saudi initiative. Now we learn that Indyk gave this support without actually pausing to give the matter careful thought.
And now—to get back to the second of our two questions—we have reason to suspect that Indyk, like pretty much every American who has played a big role in shaping policy toward the Palestinians over the last few decades, is better at looking at things from Israel’s and America’s perspective than from the perspective of other important actors, including the Palestinians.
This is US Middle East policy—and US foreign policy—in a nutshell: We proceed in blithe ignorance of, or with reckless indifference to, how important actors around the world are processing reality. And our under-informed policies then make it more likely that they’ll do horrible things, like slaughter Israelis or invade Ukraine. And once they’ve done these things, we say they’re morally responsible for them. Which is true! But wouldn’t it be better if these horrors didn’t happen in the first place?
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